United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

What Billboards Say on Iran’s Foreign Policy

            Iranian suspicion about the United States has been splashed across billboards and spray-painted on public walls ever since the 1979 revolution. But anti-American art has actually now become a source of dispute within Iran’s government—and maybe a sign of changing times.
            Shortly after new diplomatic talks between Iran and six world powers, a new set of billboards challenging American honesty popped up across Tehran. They depicted an American envoy negotiating with an Iranian official, but under the table the American was clad in fatigues and cradled a shotgun pointed at the Iranian. The caption, in Farsi, read “American honesty.”
            Media supportive of new President Hassan Rouhani publicly blasted the series of billboards. They then just as abruptly disappeared from Tehran’s streets in late October.
            The local government claimed the billboards, reportedly put up by the Owj Cultural Organization, were unauthorized. “In an arbitrary move, without the knowledge or confirmation of the municipality, one of the cultural institutes installed advertising billboards,” said Tehran city spokesman Hadi Ayyazi. 
            But hardliners pledged to put them back up during the holy month of Ashura, which starts in mid-November. Hardline media charged the Rouhani government had pressured the city to remove them for fear of hurting Iran’s new diplomatic initiative. “With this ridiculous excuse, they put so much pressure on the city that they were forced to remove the posters,” Kayhan claimed in an editorial.
            Yet anti-American artwork is still a mainstay on official websites, most notably the new graphics still posted weekly on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. The most recent one, below, was posted on October 26.
           This poster (below) on Khamenei’s Facebook page refers to the 1953 coup led by the CIA and British intelligence against Iran’s first democratically elected government. The coup also restored the shah to the throne six days after he had fled to Rome. The Facebook posting includes a past quote by Khamenei:
            “The U.S. government, with the claim of democracy, has made so many crimes against democracies in the world. It’s about the regime that staged [the] 1953 coupin Iran and led the Chilean coup against the legitimate government ofthat country. Dozens of coups have been conducted in Latin America, Africa and other regions against national governments and for many years U.S. administrations have backed dictators such as "Reza Pahlavi" and even today if a dictator is not more ugly-tempered than they are… No one would believe [the] U.S. government’s claims fordemocracyand human rights."
            The theocracy clearly still fears American domination, a theme as central to the 1979 revolution as the campaign to oust the monarchy.
            Another posted on the supreme leader’s page marked the shooting down of an Iranian passenger flight by the USS Vincennes in 1988 on the 25th anniversary. The flight carried 290 passengers and crew; all fell to their deaths. The Reagan administration said it was an accident, but Iranians still note that the American captain was awarded a medal.

Photo credits:
Billboard photo from The Islamic Republic Designing House blog
Graphics via Khamenei.ir

Iran’s Environment: Greater Threat than Foreign Foes

David Michel

      Iran faces growing environmental challenges that are now more perilous to the country’s long-term stability than either foreign adversaries or domestic political struggles. More than two-thirds of the country’s land—up to 118 million hectares—is rapidly turning into desert, Iran’s Forest, Range and Watershed Management Organization reported in mid-2013. “The main problem that threatens us [and is] more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting… is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable,” presidential adviser Issa Kalantari warned in the newspaper Ghanoon. “If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town.” He described an alarming future of desiccated lakes and depleted groundwater, potentially driving millions of Iranians from their homes.
            Iran now ranks 114 of 132 countries evaluated on 22 environmental indicators, including water resources, air pollution, biodiversity and climate change, according to the 2012 Environmental Performance Index compiled by Yale and Columbia Universities.
            Iran’s fresh water supplies are now under unsustainable strains. Ninety percent of the country—which is slightly smaller than Alaska—is arid or semi-arid, and an estimated two-thirds of its rainfall evaporates before it can replenish rivers. As a result, Iran provides more than half of its water needs by drawing from underground aquifers, but public usage is rapidly draining the subterranean reservoirs. At current rates of overuse, twelve of Iran’s thirty-one provinces will exhaust their groundwater reserves within the next 50 years.
            Iran’s economic policies have exacerbated the problem. Groundwater is free to well owners and, due to government subsidies, users pay a fraction of the actual energy costs for pumping water to the surface.  Iran annually pumps 4 billion cubic meters of groundwater that nature does not replenish. 
      Iran’s surface waters face similar pressures. Most of Iran’s rivers are hydrologically closed or nearly so, meaning their renewable water supply is already committed. So they have little spare capacity for regularly recurring dry years – when precipitation falls below the average – much less to meet the demands of a growing population. Water use upstream also increasingly impinges on water needs downstream. In the northwest, Iran’s dams (such as the Karun-3, left), irrigation systems, and drought have so diminished the 13 rivers feeding into Lake Urmia that the Middle East’s largest lake has shrunk more than 60 percent since 1995. In the southwest, Lake Bakhtegan, once Iran’s second largest lake, has dried up completely under the combined impacts of prolonged drought and damming on the Kor River.
Agriculture Imperiled
            Iran’s water problems now risk undermining the national economy. The agricultural sector produces 10 percent of Iran’s GDP and employs a quarter of the labor force. It also supports national food security, a top priority since the 1979 revolution was carried out in the name of “the oppressed.” Indeed, Tehran subsidizes producers and consumers alike in a dual strategy to promote self-sufficiency in staple crops by bolstering both supply and demand.
      Yet Iran’s food security is now imperiled because agriculture accounts for more than 92 percent of the country’s water use but only produces about 66 percent of the food supplies for 79 million people. Tehran has to import the rest. And the intensifying “water stress” threatens to further sap agricultural output, increase import bills and aggravate fiscal burdens. Agricultural demands are even subverting food security. Some areas, such as the central Kashan plain, have been rendered unfit for farming because of soil salinity, as groundwater overdrafts sink water tables.
Tough Choices
             Competition over scarce water has already fueled conflict both within Iran and with its neighbors.  In early 2013, farmers outside Isfahan destroyed a pump that diverted water from a local river to the city of Yazd some 185 miles away. Outraged at the loss of water, protestors refused to allow authorities to repair the pump, sparking  week-long demonstrations, armed clashes with police, and water shortages and rationing in Yazd.  In 2011, Iranian border guards exchanged fire with Afghan forces after crossing into Afghanistan to release water from an 18-mile irrigation canal from the Helmand River. And in the 1980s, the longest modern Middle East war was ignited by rival claims of control over the strategic Shatt-al Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq.
            The escalating pressures on Iran’s water resources raise difficult choices for competing consumers. In the Karkheh Basin, water managers have to decide what to do about lower river flows—whether to retain water in the Karkheh Dam to build reserves for hydropower or whether to release water downstream for irrigation to a region considered to be Iran’s food basket. 
            Iran faces other serious environmental risks. According to the World Health Organization, Iran has three of the world’s five most polluted cities—Ahwaz, Kermanshah, and Sanandaj—that are choked by annual levels of air pollution that are ten to eighteen times higher than WHO’s maximum guidelines. Because of its poor air quality nationwide, Iran ranked 86 out of 91 countries surveyed. In Tehran (see below) alone, contaminants in air pollution cause more than 5,500 deaths each year from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
      Global climate change is also expected to worsen Iran’s environmental woes. Changes in temperature and precipitation will lessen access to clean water, especially in rural areas, in turn generating more water-borne diseases, according to Iran’s Department of Environment. Higher temperatures and lower rainfall could cut cereal yields up to 30 percent by 2050. Climate change could reduce Iran’s total renewable water resources 15 percent to 19 percent by 2040-2050, according to a Dutch analysis. Iran’s annual water demand would then exceed its renewable supplies by more than 40 percent.
The Toll
            The damage – from water stress, desertification and pollution--could impose debilitating burdens long-term. The annual cost of Iran’s environmental degradation already amounts to a whopping 5 percent to 10 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank.  In contrast, tough U.S. and international sanctions shrunk Iran’s GDP by some 1.4 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Over time, valuable resources will be further depleted, productivity diminished, and public health damaged. 
            Mismanagement has contributed to Iran’s environmental problems.  Its cities lose one-third of their water supplies in leaky pipes. Irrigation is also highly inefficient; more than half of Iran’s renewable water used in agriculture is lost. Surmounting Iran’s environmental challenges will require serious reorientation of policies and resources. The cost of new technologies, conservation practices and other measures to meet projected water needs in 2050 could top $3 billion a year, experts say.
            Iran has recently taken important steps in the right direction. Subsidy reforms initiated in 2010 will gradually require consumers to absorb the actual costs of water supplies, enhancing the incentives to be efficient. Revenues saved from cutting back energy subsidies are intended to support initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. But the subsidy reforms stalled after phase one. They were also not designed or intended to deal with environmental challenges.  Iran’s looming environmental crisis will require a comprehensive green revolution in national policy-making.
David Michel is director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C.
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Photo credits:
Maranjab desert in Iran by by Siamaksabet (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Karun-3 dam by Zereshk via [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fieds in Eghlid county by Alireza Javaheri (Iran - Fars - Eghlid - Timargun (Namdan)) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tehran Pollution by Matthias Blume [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Kerry on Iran Nuclear Talks

            On October 28, Secretary of State John Kerry said not testing Iran’s intentions to solve the nuclear dispute would be the “height of irresponsibility and dangerous.” Kerry emphasized that whatever actions Iran would take as part of a settlement must be verifiable. He also reiterated that “no deal is better than a bad deal” that would leave Iran with potentially dangerous nuclear capabilities. Iran is scheduled to meet with the world's six major powers on November 7 in Geneva. The following are excerpted remarks from the Ploughshares Fund gala.

      Obviously, we are now facing a test of that – two tests – in North Korea and in Iran. And we are engaged, as the President has charged me to be and has welcomed, an opportunity to try to put to test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program, and will submit to the standards of the international community in the effort to prove that to the world. Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test. I suggest that the idea that the United States of America is a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise.
            Nor will be stampeded into some notion that this is easy, or that somehow just the mere statement you’re willing to do something means you have done it. Our eyes are wide open. The actions must be real. They must be fully verifiable. They must get the job done. And no words can replace those actions. And we have made it crystal clear, and I will repeat again, no deal is better than a bad deal, because a bad deal could actually wind up creating greater danger.
            So we will do what is necessary here, but it is important for everybody to remember that in a world with fewer nuclear weapons, every nation can actually be stronger, not weaker. Everybody can actually be safer and more secure because of the regimen that you set up in order to guarantee that. These are principles that guide us as we work to keep these weapons out of the hands of terrorists who seek to buy a nuclear bomb or get one off the black market, people who are nihilists with little interest in diplomacy, with no economy to sanction, no desire to join the international community, no concern for the next generation growing up on this earth.
            The principles that guide us are the same principles as we work with our international partners to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons that Michael talked about a few minutes ago. Who would have imagined a few months ago that we would be removing weapons that hadn’t even been acknowledged to exist? We have to seize these opportunities. We have to explore this in the name of humankind and in keeping with our responsibilities as stewards of this planet.

Iran Oil Exports Up 26 Percent from 2012

             Iran’s oil exports increased by 180,000 barrels per day in September 2013, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. Exports were up 26 percent from 2012, probably due to increased purchases by China, India and Japan. Crude oil production, however, was down 100,000 barrels per day in September 2013, compared to the previous month. And despite the increase in demand, Iran only exported some 1,170,000 barrels per day, less than half of its potential capacity. For example, crude oil exports were approximately 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011.
            Oil exports are vital to Iran because they account for 80 percent the country’s total export earnings and 50 to 60 percent of government revenue, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
            Until recently, Tehran’s oil exports had been on a downward trend since 2011. Tightened U.S. and E.U. sanctions had taken a serious toll. In 2012, the Islamic Republic’s oil exports had dropped to their lowest level since 1986, when the country was fighting a grueling eight-year war with Iraq. The data is reflected in the following chart from a U.S. Energy Information Administration report.

Click here for more information on Iran's oil exports.


Photo Essay: A New Mood in Iran

Semira Nikou 
            The voice of Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliament speaker, disrupted our dinner party.
            We left our plates filled with fruits and nuts to huddle around the television, as the speaker read the names of President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet picks one by one, announcing whether or not each had been approved by the parliament. One of the guests, a journalist, let out a sigh of relief with Bijan Namdar Zangeneh’s approval as petroleum minister. Zanganeh, who had served in the same position under former President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration from 1997 to 2005, was a key candidate whose nomination had been hotly challenged by Iran’s conservative parliament.
            With parliament ultimately approving 15 out of the 18 proposed ministers, the administration of hope—as Rouhani’s presidency is referred to—had delivered a competent cabinet. Now we could eat.
            There is a new mood in Iran. I recently visited Tehran in August 2013, four years after my last trip in June 2009. Much has changed since.  The Iran of 2009 and the Iran of 2013 are two different places.
            Tehran has gotten greener and more developed, the value of Iran’s currency to the dollar has dropped by threefold, and it has become nearly impossible to find good sangak bread anywhere. But the real change is subtler. There is an optimism I sensed when listening to family members—even those who had not voted in the 2013 election because of their disillusionment over the 2009 results—journalists, including one who was now ecstatic that his efforts to get a U.S. work permit had failed months prior and forced him to return to Iran, and an elderly taxi cab driver who dropped me off at home late one evening, refusing to drive away until I had safely entered the house.
            As an artist friend who voted for Rouhani described to me, “After the election, people would smile for no reason. I cannot point to anything specific, but something has changed.” He continued to tell me about the night of Rouhani’s election, how he and his friends had poured into the streets in affluent northern Tehran, booze in hand, joined by hundreds of thousands of others. “I was taking vodka shots in front of police officers. They did not say anything.”
            The election of a 64-year-old cleric had elicited the level of excitement typically seen only after soccer-match victories. In fact, the celebration continued days later when Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup by beating South Korea.
            On June 20, 2009, I had arrived in Tehran a day after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s famous Friday sermon, in which he validated the contested election results and essentially sanctioned the use of violence against protestors. I went to a demonstration that afternoon. Thousands of others marched around me but the environment was eerie. Black-clad police officers with batons attacked people who tried to agglomerate, while plain-clothes officers and basij paramilitary forces engaged in their own unchecked violence against protestors. Neda Agha Soltan was shot and killed that evening. The young woman’s death, captured on video, became a symbol of both the opposition Green Movement and of government brutality.
            This year, I was in Iran for the Friday sermon itself and, again, there were thousands around me in the streets. It was Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday signaling the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The supreme leader’s Eid-al-Fitr sermon had historically taken place at the massive Mossalah mosque, but has relocated to the smaller, and more controlled, Tehran University campus since the 2009 election to prevent protestors from disrupting the sermon.  Despite some predictions, the sermon was once again held at Tehran University this year.
            I decided to attend out of curiosity; to see how many Iranians actually participated in this event. Despite living in Iran for six years—and even serving a brief tenure as prayer leader at my elementary school—I was taken aback by the crowds that swarmed the area on that early Friday morning.
            “You will feel like it is judgment day,” a journalist aptly told me. The area around the university was so crowded that the taxi had to drop me off a mile away. Buses shuttled people to the prayer area. I started walking in the same direction as hundreds, and soon thousands, of other people. I felt extremely awkward in my bright orange, Hawaiian print scarf among the sea of black, brown, and dark blue chadors and other conservative Islamic wear. I half expected a police officer to target me for my ostentatious clothing. But that did not happen because the atmosphere was celebratory. Families jubilantly walked together as the hum of prayers permeated the area and tens of sadaqeh stalls encouraged visitors to give charity. The crowd got denser and denser. Lacking perseverance, I left before reaching the prayer area.
            Two elections, two presidents, and two very different outcomes. I hope that the new mood in Iran will not only facilitate national reconciliation, but also renew efforts for diplomacy. Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) largely failed in 2009 because a wide range of Iranian political actors refused to rally behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s effort at a nuclear deal, viewing it as attempt by the administration to consolidate power.
            But today, the mood is different. The country is ready to heal and move past the trauma of the past four years. That is why we watched and discussed the televised parliamentary debates over the new administration’s ministerial nominations and the final results read by Larijani so attentively. We felt that who was chosen actually mattered.
1) Customers waiting in line outside Kia Gallery, a popular and trendy jewelry boutique in northern Tehran. Sanctions don’t seem to have affected this store’s business!
2) Mehr Housing Units in the suburbs of Tehran. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad introduced the “Mehr Scheme” for low-income housing. But the program has been criticized for failing to deliver to all those it had promised, its poor quality construction, and contributing to the country’s inflation and budgetary problems.
3)Haft-e Tir (7th of Tir) Square in Tehran. The square gets its name from June 28, 1981, when a bomb explosion at the Iran Islamic Republic Party headquarters killed 73 Islamic Republic officials. At Haft-e Tir, like elsewhere in Tehran, pedestrians can opt to cross the city’s infamously busy streets by using pedestrian bridges—though Iranians tend to brave the crossing by foot.
4) A vendor’s spread at Jomeh Bazaar (“Friday Bazaar”), a popular market that takes place in Tehran on Fridays. Hundreds of vendors fill a multi-floor parking lot selling crafts, textiles, and antique goods from Iran and its neighboring countries. Haggling is a must.
5) A quiet afternoon at Chitgar Lake, an artificial lake in northwestern Tehran. The 120-hectre lake was officially opened in May 2013 and is popular with residents who want to take strolls, ride paddle boats, or enjoy recreational facilities. Despite the lake’s popularity with visitors, critics are concerned over its environmental impact, in light of Tehran’s limited water supply.
6) A show of lights at the Holy Defense Museum in Tehran. The museum and its surrounding areas, which include Taleqani Park, were packed with thousands of people and hundreds of honking cars during Ramadan nights. The city organized lively events every night during the holy month, featuring live music (including gheri—danceable—music), comedy skits, and stories about martyrs and the Iran-Iraq War. The park had built-in BBQ grills and tents, where people grilled kabobs, smoked ghelyoon (hookah), and watched the show on large projectors.
7) Folks exchanging currency at the Tehran Grand Bazaar. The rates change daily based on a variety of factors including reactions to domestic and global events. It is higher than the official rate. Few people, usually only importers and exporters, are qualified to get the official rate.
8) Iftar (evening meal during Ramadan) at a family gathering.
9) Hikers breaking fast at Darakeh, a popular hiking area in Tehran’s Alborz Mountains. During fasting period (daytime) in Ramadan, people are not allowed to eat or drink in public, so restaurants do not open until sundown. This café started serving customers before the day officially ended because it was the last day of Ramadan and, well, it was okay to take it easy.
10) Road to Bargeh Jahan (“bargejoon)—meaning “leaf of the world” in reference to the way the village looks like a green leaf cradled among mountain slopes. Bargejoon is a village in northeast of Tehran. It becomes nearly deserted during the cold winter months. In summer, villagers return to harvest a variety of agricultural products, including fruits such cherries, apricots, apples, and walnuts, while Tehranis use it as a summer retreat.
11) The Tehran metro, which currently has four operational lines and a fifth line is being built.
12) View from Borj-e Milad (Milad Tower). At 435 meters, the Milad tower is the tallest tower in Iran and the sixth tallest telecommunications tower in the world. The tower features a panoramic view of Tehran, a shopping area, restaurants, and art exhibits.
13) Visitors at Borj-e Milad (Milad Tower).
14) Tehran’s two-level Sadr Highway. Construction on the second level was to be finished earlier this year, with the city using a countdown to widely advertise its completion. But the project remains unfinished. Part of the difficulty in completing the second level is that it requires closing sections of the busy Sadr Highway—which is why knowing detours and shortcuts in Tehran is a highly valued skill.
15) Visitors at Emamzadeh Hashem Shrine outside Tehran.
This article was originally posted on Muftah.org.
Semira Nikou is a research associate at the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG) and is pursuing a degree at American University Washington College of Law. She previously was a contributing author to The Iran Primer.


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